A new $750,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will fund enhanced access to the Freedom on the Move digital database and the development of a range of new tools and materials that will facilitate educational and scholarly uses, researchers say.
Freedom on the Move, housed at Cornell University, is the largest digital collection of newspaper advertisements for people escaping from North American slavery. The ads, placed by enslavers, are culled from 18th- and 19th-century U.S. newspapers and are used to document the lives of people escaping bondage.
University of New Orleans history professor Mary Niall Mitchell is a lead historian for that online database.
As part of the new grant, Mitchell will pilot a national engagement project to create public “monuments” in New Orleans that memorialize formerly enslaved people and the places they are connected to, such as the sites of escape, the arrival of self-liberating people or collective resistance to enslavers.
“We are fortunate that New Orleans will be the pilot site for bringing these stories of self-liberating people into the streets, making them visible to a large public audience,” Mitchell said. “UNO will be the hub for this piece of the larger grant."
Mitchell does not yet know what form the monuments will take, but the goal is to be produce ideas that other communities can adapt, such as digital maps or guidebooks.
“We will select stories of escape in New Orleans from FOTM's database and deepen them through additional research and geo-locate them to specific addresses,” Mitchell said. “We hope to use this pilot project to open a community conversation and invite collaboration with local partners.”
Mitchell will work with Sue Mobley, a co-founder of Paper Monuments who is now research director at Monument Lab, to create prototype installations that will focus on specific people. They are hoping to create public reminders similar to Europe’s Stolperstine, which use memorial bricks to focus on victims of the Holocaust.
“These will be creative projects that commemorate not war but, rather, the courage required of enslaved people to survive, resist and liberate themselves, even if only briefly, from enslavers,” Mitchell said.
In addition to the public monument, the grant allows researchers to continue and expand a partnership with The Hard History Project. Last summer, an educator portal was launched on the FOTM site that includes videos of students and teachers working together using the digital database to explore the history of enslaved people, Mitchell said.
"This new funding from the NEH will allow us to take Freedom on the Move to new levels in terms of digital infrastructure and public engagement,” Mitchell said.
Freedom on the Move is led by a team of historians from Cornell, Ohio State University, University of Alabama, University of Kentucky and the University of New Orleans. They work in concert with programmers at the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER).